Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Journal of a ‘Novel’-Entry 40

My Year In Review

It’s already December, and that means it’s time for year-end assessments, if we dare to make them. The fortieth entry of a journal tracking the progress of what may become my first novel, should it ever find its way to the light, is probably an appropriate place to consider how 2007 has panned out in terms of the novel’s development and in terms of my overall progress as a writer. If that sounds like a bore to whoever is reading this, all I can say is that while it is possible that a writer’s journal may one day end up being read by others, it’s not written with that possibility in mind, so you can’t really expect it to offer thrills.

My goal for 2007 was to write three more chapters of Only the Dying (working title). In the end, I was only able to complete two. If this is a kind of failure, it’s not one that I can’t recover from; it only means I fell one chapter short of the goal. Two chapters beats one or none. The main thing is that the novel in progress can be said to still be in progress – and trust me, given my track record with starting novels I was unable to finish, that’s a good thing.

In fact, I still think I am doing pretty well overall, with an attainable goal to complete the novel by age 40 (just turned 37), and having a Prologue and four chapters of the first draft complete (save additional revisions). I wrote 3 chapters (the Prologue is a chapter, more or less) in 2006 and added two this last year. I have always envisioned the novel to be made up of a Prologue, three parts, and some kind of epilogue or postscript, and my current plan is to write one more chapter (Chapter V), after which Part I of the novel will be finished. I project that the final novel will run somewhere between 12 and 15 chapters; by that measure, you might say I am 1/3 of the way there, and that’s not at all bad. I still have three years to complete the other 2/3 of the book, and although I doubt that will be easy, it seems achievable.

Length is a problem – for me it always is – but it can also be checked later on in the process. Through the end of Chapter IV my first draft is now running at around 260 pages, double-spaced. At this rate the draft will probably be somewhere around 1000 pages, and that is obviously too long, but I am sure a lot will change before this is all over! It’s always better to have too much written than too little, something I always say to the college students I tutor. Somebody once compared writing a novel to sculpture; you start with the raw cube or block of material, and you hack away at it until you get to the work of art inside. That’s what I would liken this process to, although I’m not sure if what’s inside my block is exactly Michelangelo’s Pieta. But you get the idea.

The good news is I have a general idea of how I want to kick off the next chapter (but I haven’t started it yet, I have some more research to do), and a vision of the overall concept and structure of the book, while somewhat nebulous, exists in my head. It’s been in development there for years, not months, so it’s not something I cooked up just last March and started scribbling at pell-mell. I know in broad terms what I am trying to accomplish, and I know from my experience that the creative process works if you put in the necessary effort. Many times now in the process of writing this longer story I have not had a clear idea of how to complete the section I was engrossed in, and every time it has come together eventually by sitting down and working at it. While most of the real grunt work of this novel still lies ahead – 2/3 of the first draft and all of the revision and editing labors –, it is critical for me to understand that I am capable of overcoming obstacles.

I had a tough time on Chapter III of the novel, which I started in December 2006 and didn’t finish until June of this year. But there was also a lot happening in my personal life during the same period – I started a new job, searched for and found my first house, moved my entire family, and worked on settling in a new state. In addition, I experienced the worst period of blockage I’ve had so far in this effort in the middle of this chapter, which might have happened even without all those ‘x’ factors. A few scenes didn’t feel right to me, and I am still not sure if they are. Nonetheless, I battled through it, finished the chapter, and had a somewhat easier time with Chapter IV. Chapter V is anybody’s guess, but if I’ve written I through IV, I guess there’s no real reason why I can’t write V. I’m proud that I made it through that tough chapter and that challenging period in my life in general and can say I am still writing the novel!

I’m also proud that I didn’t just sit idly by while I struggled on the book. During the first half of the year I also managed to publish twice – a period of torrid output in light of my few-and-far-between publication successes! In June my short essay on Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch appeared in Paste magazine, published throughout the United States and Europe. Later on, in the September/October issue of St. Austin Review, an appreciation I wrote of the novelist Ron Hansen’s work appeared, which I wrote in February, while I was blocked on Chapter III of the novel. This experience was gratifying in a number of ways: a) it had been a goal of mine to some day pay tribute to Hansen’s work, as he is one of my all-time literary heroes; b) this piece in particular was rejected three times but I still found a home for it; c) my name appeared on the cover of the magazine itself, only the second time it has happened to me; and d) most significantly, I was encouraged by many people to send the article to Ron Hansen, who teaches at Santa Clara University, and when I did, Hansen wrote me back a personal card to thank me for the tribute, which I will keep forever, in which he said I had ‘made his week’. It was a generous gesture from a great writer and a fine role model for young novelists, and of course I am grateful to Ron Hansen for making it.

Finally, in my never-ending quest to become a published fiction writer, I made another attempt this year to write a short story (also during my ‘blocked’ period), which I finished, the only short story I have produced in the last two years (after writing primarily stories between 2003 and 2005). The story was called “In The Throes”, and I think it turned out pretty well; it was ambitious both in terms of subject matter (it was written as a kind of response to the sexual abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church) and in character (my protagonist was a teenage girl). I thought it had some of my best prose writing to date. Nonetheless, it failed to find a home in print (it was rejected by two magazines), and after about fifteen years of trying, I still have yet to successfully publish a work of fiction. I won’t give up on that, however, I can assure you.

So, I think that 2007 was a literary year I can be somewhat proud of in spite of falling short of my goal of writing three chapters of the novel. For 2008, I will follow the old adage of “try, try again”, and set my goal for three more new chapters, so that hopefully sometime around December one year from now I will be saying I’ve made it through to the end of Chapter VII of the book (possibly ½ through?). It won’t be easy: this year brings yet another monumental life change in the form of my third child, due in May/June 2008, and I will still be working two jobs and trying to live up to all of my responsibilities at the same time.

When does a man find time to write in those circumstances? The answer is, whenever he can. It is obvious that with regard to the giant task of writing a first novel at my stage of life, there is still a long row to hoe, as it were; however, to quote an old hymn I managed to turn up in my research, “the Lord’s blessings are in the plow”.

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